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Excerpts from the beginning by Elizabeth Blodgett Hall

Each month, the Newsroom publishes commentary by the leadership at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. For the 2008-2009 year, Perspectives will address different aspects of the early college movement. All of these pieces draw from—and reflect on—the accumulated knowledge of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the nation’s first early college. Since that time, interest in early college has blossomed. Hundreds of early college programs now exist—serving diverse needs through a variety of program structures in an array of settings. Within this vibrant landscape, Simon’s Rock remains not only the pioneering institution, but the nation’s only college of liberal arts expressly designed to educate students early. This is the unique, time-tested perspective that Simon’s Rock brings.

This month, Perspectives features an excerpt of an essay written by Simon’s Rock founder Elizabeth Blodgett Hall. In it she recounts how the early college idea was born.

Excerpts from the beginning
An essay by Elizabeth Blodgett Hall

EBH[What] was to be the philosophy of education that would represent this new institution? First of all, it had to be called a college. My interest and concern had been focused for some time on the years beyond high school. This, of course, was inevitable as a result of my fifteen years as head of Concord Academy, a high school for girls, part day and part boarding in Concord, Massachusetts. One episode had focused my attention on the term “college preparatory.” Frequently, in late January or February, students that had graduated the previous June from Concord Academy, would return for a visit. They were freshman now and mid-year examinations were over. What fun to visit their “old school” and tell friends in the class behind them, now seniors at Concord Academy, what college life was like. On this occasion, a girl who had been an honors student, came to call on me after visiting her friends. After greeting her warmheartedly, and asking about her health, as we all did, I asked her what she did not like about her college. She was surprised that I knew at once that I had hit a matter of concern. They, like every other senior class, had tried so hard to get into college. The day when an acceptance ahd arrived in the mail, had been greeted by each happy recipient with screeches of joy. Now, before me, sat one who did not seem very happy. So often as was usual with troubled people in my office, she looked out the window for an answer.

“Tell me,” I began. “Wull,” she began. This, from long experience, I knew to be the beginning of a troubled answer. “Go on,” I continued cheerfully, “tell me.” She looked up at me, looked out the window again, dropped her eyes, and drummed a little tattoo on the arm of her chair with her fingers.

“My dad told me he would kill me if I didn’t get into college. I laughed at him at the time. His stories about the four years he had spent at Harvard sounded like a lot of fun. Now I was trying to get into Radcliffe. That was a sister college to Harvard, but it was really a Harvard education. You registered at Radcliffe and paid your tuition over there across the square. But, you had all your classes at Harvard. That was great, I thought, but I feel differently.”

She sounded so sad. “Why?” I asked. “I dunno” she said wearily. “The courses are okay most of them. IN between it’s just one day after another.”

“Well,” I said, trying to fill in the gap between Monday classes and Tuesday classes in my imagination, “you’re not from around her and it takes a little while to make friends in a new part of the country.”

She looked up at me. “Oh, it’s not that!” A tone of fierceness has crept into her voice. “It just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and my dad says he’ll kill me if I don’t finish. But, I’m thinking of dropping out at the end of this year.”

I continued of course, with words of encouragement. “Things would get better, give it a chance…” But I knew that my arguments were a brave cover for a misgiving that had been growing for some time in my own mind.

I had similar thoughts myself with increasing frequency. Year after year, I had seen bright seniors graduate gaily and go on to colleges of their choice. But was it their choice or was it their parent’s choice? Their parents had a right to choose. They were paying for her education, but their choice was based on memories from a different time.

Here now was a new beginning. What did we need? School, high school and college had been the established order for a long time. The more I thought about this, the more I came to believe it was not right for our time. This, in turn, forced me to think of what I believed to be needed in education. The word “learn” came first to mind. Yes, but “think” must be primary. The more I thought about it, the more surely I felt that “think” was of primary importance. In a world as complicated as the United States had become, the ability to make good choices had become more difficult. Simple learning was no longer enough. For many people, to learn was to memorize, and what was memorized would tell you what to do. Memorizing had been of prime importance for years. If you memorized, you could recite, you could do well on tests and presumably you would know what to do. But this, alas, seemed to me was no longer true.

So what did this kind of thinking on my part mean for this new college which was to be called Simon’s Rock? It meant, first of all, that it had to be for young people, boys and girls who had started to think long before they hit the disappointment of the sad freshman I talked with that day, who was thinking of leaving Radcliffe at the end of her first year. She was “thinking” about leaving at the end of that year. She had begun thinking long ago, but her “thinking” had been sidetracked by the convention of “getting into college” after high school. Why not start Simon’s Rock as an institution that would provide learning for students who had begun to think independently sometime before. I could not in my own mind make a rule for when thinking begins. But I knew it could begin and did begin for many long before they finished high school. I also knew that many who were finishing high school, were getting high marks on examinations asking for information they had memorized. In many cases, this was information they learned to memorize. It was not information they had personally thought about to any great extent. So, Simon’s Rock should be available to students who had learned to think about what they knew.